Prior to Impact BBDO’s recent Grand Prix success with AnNahar Newspaper’s ‘The Elections Edition’, recently appointed CCO for the MENAP (Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan) region, Ali Rez, sat down with LBB’s Nisna Mahtani to share his view on creativity and explain how the UAE is positioning itself as “the centre of the world”.
LBB> Firstly, congratulations on the new role! What was your reaction when you first found out?
Ali> My initial reaction when I found out was a little bit of terror. But the good kind. Because I do think that in this industry at every point, I know it's almost a cliche now, but you should be a little scared of what you're doing. There is a great clip of David Bowie where he says that you should be at that point where your toes are just touching the ground. You can't be where you're really comfortable and relaxed, where you're not going to be learning anything new and of course, you can't be way out there where you'll eventually drown either! So I think I've managed to find that. I’m also insanely excited about the opportunities, especially given the team I am surrounded by, and the awesome leadership support I have, both at the regional and global level.
LBB> We’d love to hear about your vision for the MENAP region, can you share your creative goals with us?
Ali> The vision is very clear: To create the best work in the world. One thing that I'm particularly keen on doing is to make sure that more famous work comes out of the region. There already has been a lot of really amazing category-defining work created that's shown up on the global radar in the last few years, and we are looking to exponentially increase that.
For the longest time, this region had to deal with, and still deals with, a lot of work that gets created abroad, but comes here and is adapted for the region. I'd like to turn that around. I'd like to create work here that is right for here, but is so good that it gets adapted abroad - we've done that with a lot of projects already. We've done it with our 7Up clients in Pakistan, we've done it with Lays – the smiley face packs from BBDO Cairo, which then became a global campaign. So I think more of that would be great. This region is good enough, even better than a lot of agencies around the world, to be able to create the kind of work that becomes massive.
Culturally, a lot of things are catching up with the rest of the world here. They might not seem as new but they are pre-cataclysmic in the context of the region. There are so many rapid changes taking place and I think part of the vision is to be part of that positive change to help creativity and further that change as it happens, and it's amazing to be at the centre of it. It's a very exciting, exciting time to be here.
LBB> Your sentiment was “Let’s get to work”, can you tell us more about the approach you’re bringing to the role?
Ali> The BBDO philosophy is simply the work, the work, the work. That's what you want to be known for. Unexpected work, bold work, effective work, crazy work – but it's about the work at the end of the day. And this is the place where you find joy in making the work come to life.
That sentiment was more of a call for everybody to join this sort of movement, to be part of the drive of “let's get to work,” let's create the best work there is but by being your best to yourself and to others as well. That's another philosophy that is very important to us. “Do good work and be good to others.” Those two things are not a cost to each other, they do happen together and they happen concurrently. We're building more of a positive culture embedded with happiness and purpose, and I'm a firm believer that happy people create the best work, as long as people find joy and purpose in what they do. I think that's the kind of work that we should be doing more of.
LBB> Can you tell us about any recent pieces of Impact BBDO work that you are particularly proud of and which are significant to you?
Ali> We launched a very impactful piece in Lebanon a few months ago, called The Elections Edition
[which has since won a Grand Prix at Cannes Lions] and it was a very bold move by the national newspaper AnNahar to do this. It was a very simple idea, which came out of an insightful conversation – our Business Unit Lead had just returned from Beirut and had heard that government officials were complaining about the lack of paper and ink in the country. Lebanon is short on everything because of the prices there. And because of the shortage of paper and ink, they said they wouldn't be able to print voting ballots, and therefore the election might need to be postponed. The solution fell right out of this insight. We presented our idea to the client, and AnNahar is just amazing. They're really brave about everything they do – terrifyingly brave – and they agreed not to print their ‘Elections Edition’ and instead of printing it, they donated the paper and ink to print ballots, emphasising the fact that there should be no excuses and that the elections should go ahead.
The elections did go ahead and of course, there was a big movement around making sure that a lot of noise was made around electing the right candidates. And in a very new move, almost a quarter of people elected are now new reformist candidates, which signals a bright future for the country. So that was really heartening to see. And we were really happy and proud to be part of that.
LBB> You moved to Dubai in 2010 after two decades in the US, which you’ve previously explained was to be closer to family. What were some of the initial differences you noticed between markets?
Ali> I grew up jumping from country to country because my parents were in the diplomatic services and we kept moving from one place to another. The biggest challenge when I moved here initially, funnily enough, was getting used to Friday and Saturday as a weekend. I was so used to Saturday and Sunday because I spent most of my life in the States. And then earlier this year, the UAE changed the weekends to Saturday and Sunday, I had convinced myself of the change – and had to change back again.
When I came to Dubai, everything was being built here and everything felt new. The US obviously has had a century of building things. So when you come here, you see things being constructed and brand new, and then on top of that, the ambition is that things will be the biggest in the world, or the finest in the world. We've got the biggest building in Burj Khalifa and it was amazing to see it come to life. Everything felt very fresh to me and brand new which is very exciting to be part of. The other thing is that everything is very scaled up here. Everything is designed to be noticed at a global level. And that is a phenomenal thing to be part of as well. Because you feel that there is a lot of potential for growth and a desire to be the best in the world. That's the driving force behind everything here.
LBB> And what do you think of the market there now in terms of creativity?
Ali> Creativity, just like the market itself, is rapidly evolving and growing. There's a lot of experimentation. Clients want to take big risks and make bold manoeuvres. One thing I love about this place is that it's an absolute cultural melting pot. So that's the one difference that I did not feel coming from a place like San Francisco, which is obviously also very diverse. It's insane how much diversity there is in terms of nationalities. Just in this office, we have about 47 different nationalities. I sit in a room for brainstorming with somebody from New Zealand, somebody from Lebanon, somebody from India, and somebody from South Africa and everybody brings a really different viewpoint. The creative that comes out of it is so anonymously rich and powerful. That’s a beautiful thing to witness.
LBB> Is there anything you’re keen to tell people about the MENAP region that they may not already know about?
Ali> For anybody who hasn't been here. I would say please come visit. Every single country in this region is fascinating. Every single country is very different from its neighbour. They might speak the same language, in a broader sense, but it's different on a nuanced level. It's like if you look at East Asia, a number of different countries but all very different from each other with different micro-cultures. Each country brings a different set of insights, and different things to discover. This is the region of the future, I firmly believe that.
If I focus on Pakistan, it’s staggering because they’re going to add 60 million people to the consumer class by 2030. 60 million! That will make them rise around seven spots in the ranking of the world’s biggest consumer markets from where they are right now. Also, Saudi Arabia has had their retail market size projected to grow by about 20% this year and it’s primarily driven by e-commerce. The UAE is positioning itself to be the centre of the world. It's done enormously well to gain that reputation already. It's innovative. It's very bold. There are initiatives here that are aimed toward fulfilling big dreams, not just for the region, but globally. You know, this is the region of possibilities.
LBB> When you aren’t working, what are your favourite ways to kick back and relax?
Ali> Creatives never relax! You're always either observing things or having an epiphany or some realisation that your brain decides to send to you at that point and then you quickly write it down to remember at some other point.
I love travelling, but even when I travel, I try to go to two places to learn – I go to the local market to see how people behave. Another place which is very interesting to observe, oddly enough, are cemeteries, just to see human behaviour around how people cope with emotions and loss, and what their beliefs are; whether it’s a New Orleans jazz band at a funeral, or a completely different spiritual experience if you go to a Buddhist temple in East Asia.